New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 13 Jan 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Sufis and Scholars of the Sea


By Irena Knehtl

28 July, 2012


Anne K Bang – Sufis and Scholars of the Sea

Published by RoutledgeCurzon

ISBN 0-415-31763-0

About Anne K Bang

Is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway. Historian of Islamic societies with a special focus on Arabia and the Muslim communities of Eastern Africa as well as the wider Indian Ocean rim.

Her research has primarily focused on factors that cause ritual and devotional life, intellectual discourses and political ideologies to change in different Muslim societies. Focusing on the Muslim societies of the Indian Ocean (east/southeast Africa) and Southeast Asia her research has mainly focused on migration and cosmopolitan Muslim societies and the ensuing family- trade- and scholarly networks. She has also worked on Islamic education and on the transmission of scriptural cultural heritage in Africa. In addition, she has worked on the role of Norwegian traders in during the colonial era.

She has published several books and articles on these topics.


There is a need to understand the Indian Ocean area as a cultural complex which should be analyzed beyond the geographical division of Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and South-East Asia, as its coastal population intermingled constantly. Family networks in East Africa (1860 – 192, originating in the South Yemeni region of Hadhramawt, the Alawi tariqa, mainly spread along the coast of the Indian Ocean. The book discusses the renowned scholar, Ahmed b. Sumayt. The "Alawis" are portrayed as one of several cultural mediators in the multi-ethnic, multi- religious Indian Ocean world in the era of European colonialism.

Indian Ocean had a profound influence on the lives of the people who lived on its shores. Fishermen, sailors, and merchants traveled its waters linking the world`s earlier civilizations from Africa to East Asia in a complex web of relationship.

Trade under-pinned these relationships but the Ocean was also a highway for the exchange of religions cultures and technologies, giving the Indian Ocean an identity as a largely self-contained world. It was the expansion of Hinduism Buddhism, and Islam helped to define the boundaries of the "world" which by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was one of the most prosperous and culturally complex regions on earth.

By the sixteenth century, Europeans were part of this "world" as partners in trade with the indigenous peoples. But from eighteenth century this economic relationship changed as the economies of the Indian Ocean "world" integrated with the capitalist economies of the West. The change from commercialism to capitalism ended the insularity of the Indian Ocean "world" and began its integration, as region, into the global economy and its territorial division among various European powers. This transition altered the ancient web of regional cultures. The Ocean was no longer a major force binding the peoples on its shores in a self-conscious entity, but the legacy of the past is still evident in their common religious, cultural and historical experience.

Mwambao is the Swahili name for the East African Coast, the chosen habitat of the Swahili people. The Swahili were called Coast People by the Arabs, and the Swahili Coast was being referred to as "Murudi al Dahab" or Golden Pastures. Numerous bays, creeks, and inlets resulting from coral rock being eaten away by the sea, providing excellent harbors e.g. near Mtwapa, Kilifi, Mombasa and Vanga while the majority of the rivers are in Mozambique. The entire coast is composed of coral rock and most of it provides soft beaches, useful for landing of small crafts. The presence of water in Lamu, for example, helped to cool the hot coast climate; the choice of site ensured a maximum of fresh breeze from the sea upon the sandstone rock.

Regular rainfall has given the coast and the islands south of Equator rich vegetation, unlike the arid Somali coast north of it. Regular trade winds brought sailors and traders in search of resins, and gums for carpentry furniture making, cosmetics, perfume etc. Mangrove poles growing abundantly in the Lamu archipelago were used for ship building and roof beams. Of the animal products, ivory, rhino horn and tine cat perfume were the most sought artifacts already in antiquity. Of mineral products it has been export market for gold, while Ethiopia exported gems such as emeralds, and after year 1100 also coffee.

Arabs were traveling to East Africa with the monsoon from South Arabia and Gulf even in pre-Christian times. The earliest inscriptions were found on the island of Zanzibar c. 1070 AD. There is also the oldest datable discovered mosque in East Africa. Arabs continued to visit the Coast and to settle there throughout the centuries as individual traders, or as empire builders accompanied by large families, or establishing themselves as independent rulers. The Arab were known by their family names, some of which they have planted in African soil. They were identified by the region, Yemen, Oman, Hadhramawt or even by the name of towns, Muscat, Shihr, Mukelle, Aden from which they sprang, even though they may have lived in Africa for generations. They made Pate, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and other towns their home.

Mombasa, in the land of the Zanji, boasted wonderful orchards, which contained lemons and banana trees, all of which still grow, and rose apples. Carpets lay on the floors of the guest house. The meal consisted of rice, cooked or fried in butter, dishes of meat, fowl, fish and vegetables, pickles, lemons, bananas, ginger, and mangoes. Similar meals are still served in the Swahili tows today. There were mosques built in coral stones. The Arabs functioned as teachers and preachers, traders or rulers on all parts along the Swahili Coast bringing their own Arabic textbooks for prayer sessions, and hymns to be sung in the mosques.

The numerous elegant dhows connected the colorful ports of the Swahili Coast. Then the creeks were filled with dhows blown down by the monsoons, dhows of all shapes and rigs from Lamu, Bombay, Persian Gulf and from Arabia, some high and dry, some in repair. The dhows, known also as the Silent Wanderers of the sea, were patiently awaiting the southern breezes to blow them back to their homes.

Long ago before petroleum was discovered in the Middle East, incense, fragrant resins, spices and perfumed wood dominated Arab trade. Southern Arabia as the centre of trade prospered and its maritime history is the subject of tales. The talk would be incomplete without mentioning "the Yemeni era", which was an intensely human and cultural civilization that promoted and enriched various facets of social, economic and political life of East Africa. They participated actively in various dimensions of the emerging civilization, including domestic and international trade, underpinned by their vast experience in traveling the world seas.

"Sufis and Scholars of the Sea" is an important text which synthesizes chronological and historic graphical range into its compact frame. The work researches the directly relevant histories of Hadhramawt, Oman and East Africa during 1860 – 1925 through the life of one of the most influential Hadhrami East African scholar of that period Ahmed B. Sumayt.

Zanzibar`s future, an island off the coast of present day Tanzania, thus was shaped by its geographical position, right in the middle of the Indian Ocean trade routes. It is a place of winding alleys, bustling bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses, whose original owners viewed each other over the extravagance of their dwellings. It boasts not only natural beauty, rich culture, and breathtaking architecture. Zanzibar during Ibn Sumayt`s time emerged as an important centre of learning in East Africa eclipsing previous centers such as Lamu and Mombasa.

Today Zanzibar is also the name of a town in southern Yemen while Yemeni jewelry is sold in the shops of Zanzibar. Unlike Oman, Hadhramawt (a governorate in the present Republic of Yemen) does not have a history of a colonial power in the Indian Ocean. Hadhramawt is known for its continuous export of people to the land of the Indian Ocean, including the East African coast. They were religious scholars, traders, cultural brokers, whose impact on both recipient and home country is a topic which has aroused much interest in recent years.

To them, the Ocean was no barrier rather a long established arena for cultural and intellectual exchange. With them traveled goods and ideas, word of mouth, and word in writing, fashion, habits, linguistic patterns, and seeds for new agricultural crops. They left their imprint on the place, the most notable being the religion of Islam, and absorbed cultural elements that were not Arab in origin. The Indian Ocean ports were not distant exotic cities but actual real places, and where the human chain, the "silsila", extended through space and time. This is the "world" into which we enter with A.K Bang`s "Sufis and Scholars of the Sea".

The topic of this fine scholarly study is the scholarly exchange of ideas between Hadhramawt and East Africa. It is the history of Islam during the nineteenth and early twenties century. The study beautifully reconstructs the channels through which "Alawis", a Sufi tariqa, originated in the South Yemeni region of Hadhramawt spread along the coast of the Indian Ocean. It discusses and focuses on life of one of the most influential Hadhrami – East African scholars of the period Ahmed B. Sumayt. Thru Ibn Sumayt`s life, it explores how links were maintained, reinforced, and how their "world" related to other ideas emerging at the same time. How they formed a tight knit, a transoceanic network of individuals linked together by blood, and common experience, which remained open until well into the twentieth century when colonial frontiers came to be decisive factors, when the peoples actually transformed themselves into nations.

It researches what the "Alawis" actually thought in East Africa, what inspired their teachings, its explores their scholarly links, and further the impact of Hadhrami Alawis on nineteenth century East African scriptural Islam. It places the highly scriptural widely traveled and deeply learned tradition of Hadhramawt in East Africa in the frame work of Islamic learning.

The Alawis were traveling widely for seeking out knowledge beyond their local communities, and in Ibn Sumayt`s case, in his mature years he traveled equally wide to spread knowledge. As result families became not only transoceanic, but also trans-regional. Time flies and things change: as nineteenth century drew closer, the Alawis in East Africa, like their fellow residents in the Indian Ocean shores, were exposed to European colonialism.

The central figure of this research, Ahmed B. Abo Bakr b. Sumayt (1860– 1925)-

was one of the most prominent Hadhrami-East African scholars of that period. Born in the Comoro Islands, to a father who had immigrated from Hadramawt, Ibn Sumayt returned to his father’s homeland. But he achieved his greatest fame in East Africa, as a pious man, a scholar, and qadi in Zanzibar. As East Africa came under colonial rule he earned great respect from those British administrators who came into contact with him. It was he - who made them appreciate the true Arab reactions - to foreign rule.

Through focusing on the life of Ibn Sumayt and his life within a network, it presents the life "in the middle", of a "man in the middle". Ibn Sumayt is the link between sail ships and oil tankers, between the empires of the monsoon, via the period of European imperialism, and the ear of the notion states. Especially the later half of the nineteenth century when he saw European influence in East Africa and British influence in Zanzibar.

Ibn Sumayt was also a reformer and teacher, at the same time fully aware of developments in the Middle East. We meet him as propagator of improved agricultural methods, and even discussing new breed of crops with friends. However, Ibn Sumayt`s importance lays in his work as qadi and how the Ulama found their place in the "colonial space" as active partners. Ibn Sumayt is presented here as pious and learned man - yet intensely human, who possessed a reputation which extended far beyond the limits of Zanzibar.

"Sufis and Scholars of the Sea" is well researched, focused in excellent presented. It will be of interest to scholars, researchers, students but also as general reading to all those interested in the role and contribution of the Yemeni Hadhrami Arab scholars to the history and culture of the Indian Ocean.